Hamlet at The Factory – Secret Shakespeare

musicOMH’s Emma Catty reports on a unique production of Shakespeare, one that takes place in a different ‘secret’ location each week.

Tim Carroll’s production of Hamlet for The Factory theatre company takes audience participation to a new level. It asks its audience members to choose the cast – who plays who – to sit on stage and even to provide the props.
The result is an energetic and enjoyable rush through the Bard’s most performed play, at some of the most unusual and beautiful venues in the capital.

Going to the theatre in London can be a painful business, not just because of the increase in the number of terrible musicals and expensive tickets, but also because many people, like me with a knee injury, find sitting in many of the cramped West End theatres pretty uncomfortable after 20 minutes. This turns watching Shakespeare’s longest, Hamlet, into an exercise in masochism I’m not temped to try that often, Jude Law or no Jude Law.

Enter stage left, The Factory, and their take on Hamlet directed by former Globe associate director, Tim Carroll. One of the key selling points is the fact that it is performed away from the main drag of the West End in a different, unusual venue every time (no sign of those cramped red seats) and that the audience are encouraged to get up between acts (a chance to stretch one’s legs, hurrah) as the actors move about the space.

Previous venues include City Hall, the underpass outside Riverside Studios and a number of small alternative theatres across the capital. Performed every Sunday at 5pm, the only way you can find out the week’s venue is by signing up to the company’s website or joining its Facebook group.

The downside to the ‘secret’ venues is that finding them can be tricky; I arrived late at the beautiful Wilton Music Hall to find they were midway into the production’s first unique moment – when the audience decides which actor plays which character using a scissors, paper, stone tournament.

I picked up my chair from the stack at the back of the venue and sat ‘where I liked’ as instructed by the usher. As I made myself comfortable the members of the audience were asked to raise their props – each week the actors choose their prop not from a pre organised box but from the things the audience bring with them. So one week Ophelia might lament with a marrow, the next, like this performance, with a BB gun. As the production dispenses with both cast list and programme, I couldn’t tell you who this week’s Ophelia was, but she spoke the lines as if Shakespeare had meant them to be shot all along.

Despite the use of Facebook and playground games, The Factory’s founders Tim Evans and Alex Hassell, alongside Carroll, have created a production of Hamlet with an intensity that more than matches anything by the Donmar or RSC.

Formed in 2006, the company’s dedication to ‘continuous and evolving exploration of the theatrical art form’ was clear throughout, although sometimes the improvisation left it feeling like a comedy rather than tragedy.

Moving between the balcony and floor, the actors interacted with the audience and venue with fast paced and nerve wracking style. At one moment Hassell as Hamlet picked a baby out of the audience to use as a prop, and in another threw himself off the balcony leaving the audience gasping. The movement and improvisation, as well as the fact the cast is always different, gives the performance a one off quality that leaves you wanting to find out just how they’ll do it next week.

With the spirit of ‘anything might happen’ (the power fails two minutes before the end) The Factory has managed to achieve its objective of ‘challengeing traditional processes of theatre making’ and still create something that feels more like an authentic Shakespeare than any you might see at a certain historic theatre on the banks of the Thames (and without the Elizabethan torture it calls seats!)

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